With a grin: rejecting the victim’s stance

One of the great follies of our day is that every group’s story has become a tragedy. Our society has increasingly embraced a discourse of victimization, in which every subculture tends to define itself in terms of grievances created by other groups. This is most prominent in queer, feminist, and racial discourses, but it has crept into every corner of our society, to our great harm.

A culture in which the language of victimization is primary is doubly broken. First, it drowns out the cries of real victims in a torrent of illegitimate (or at least, much less legitimate) claims. People who have suffered real abuse find it much harder to get a hearing when others are using “abuse” as merely one more lever to achieve their own ends. To be sure, many of the groups that cry “victim” do so with some legitimacy. Christians in America really never have to worry about being beaten mercilessly for their proclaimed identity; people who come out as gay do in certain parts of the country. Feminists have had legitimate complaints about male abuse of power, and we would do well to listen – which is not to say that we must agree with every such complaint; we shouldn’t, and I don’t.

Even when communities have experienced real hostility and oppression, though,the choice to define themselves entirely in these terms of persecution is to everyone’s detriment: the second pernicious consequence of embracing a pervasive culture of victimization is that the possibility of dialogue between oppressor and victim erodes rapidly. Rational discourse is and must be out the window. All that remains is conflict, lasting until the old grievances have been redressed and the power balance righted – or at least, right from the perspective of the victim. Anyone who has studied the French Revolution knows how that plays out.1

Christians, then, ought not perpetuate a culture oriented around the language of victimization. Unfortunately, though, and to our shame, many evangelicals are full participants in this culture. One need only look at our approach to the culture wars to see this born out: we are so often defensive and angry at how “our country” is being taken from us; we feel persecuted by the media and the courts;2 we act out our grievances by taking swipes at others. Other groups may continue down that path; we must chart a different course.

But before we continue, it is important to ask why so many Christians have adopted the same aggrieved tone as the world.

We suffer at the moment from a twin malaise: we feel ourselves on the defensive because we put insufficient stock in the credibility of our own positions, and we resent our loss of position at the center of culture. Our frustrations, in turn, push us to adopt the same terms in the debate and assume the same basic postures as our opponents in the culture war. As James Davison Hunter has noted in To Change the World, much of the hostility pervasive to the “culture war” phenomenon is rooted, at least in part, in this dual sense of victimization and insufficiency. We lash out at those we perceive to have caused us harm, or by whom we feel threatened due to our lack of confidence.

As Matt put it, noting how counterproductive our hostility can be,

It is impossible if we are not confident for our intellectual positions to sound like good news. Good news is not the sort of thing that has to be browbeaten into folks. It can be offered, cheerfully and with a smile, and it will have more influence and effect than all the cautions and warnings of social decline might ever have.

Here, the culture war mentality really does a number on our effectiveness. If the point is defeating our opponents, rather than persuading them to join our side, then why should we work to make our positions sound like good news to them?

Coming at this same point from a different direction, Hunter points out how ressentiment becomes central in a group’s identity:

The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity. Understanding themselves to be victimized is not a passive acknowledgment but a belief that can be cultivated. Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. (To Change the World, p. 108)

One of the most significant moves Christians can make in the culture wars, then, is to drop the sense of entitlement and the accompanying resentment when things don’t go our way, and to forge in their place a cheerful, Chestertonian (which is to say: friendly and witty and incisive all at once) confidence in the truth of our positions and a deeper trust in the sovereignty of God. When attacked we can respond with good cheer. But how?

First, we must take into account that we American evangelicals are actually not much persecuted here, especially compared to our many brothers and sisters across the world and across history. Neither occasional hostility by coworkers, nor derision by the media, or even the slow collapse of American civil religion constitute persecution.

Second, and more important, we must recognize that persecution – real persecution – is in fact normative for Christians. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:13 (emphasis mine). Faith in Christ subverts all the broken powers and fallen philosophies of the world; we ought to expect hostility from those powers and philosophies in response. With this in view, we can recognize that our natural democratic tendency to take political action to assert our rights against those who would wrong may ultimately be counterproductive.

That is not to say that we ought to turn to civic quietism, disengaging from cultural or political action. To the contrary – but let us leave behind the resentment at being opposed or even mocked. When our opponents jeer, we should grin at them: we saw it coming, and it’s not exactly a cause for alarm. If our positions are true, they will win out in the end; why so worried in the meantime?

Third, we must remember that we are not victims. Again, some theological retuning is in order. On the Christological (and Pauline) model, suffering is ultimately a cause for joy. Thought it may not seem that way now, in the end, our suffering produces for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). We may understand persecution or suffering in this age in terms of victimization; or we may see how God uses it to conform us to his image, to transform us to better understand and serve others, and to advance the gospel.

We must learn to take much more seriously Paul’s discussion of “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24): that is, the suffering necessary to take the gospel to a world that is naturally in opposition to God and therefore to his people. Persecution is not only normal, not even only normative, but to be embraced as a cause for joy by Christians. This is remarkably countercultural in every society, because it runs opposite to fallen human nature, but it may be particularly provocative – subversive, even – in a culture so thoroughly consumed by narratives of power and victimization.

Finally, and most importantly, we can have confidence that God is, in fact, orchestrating all things for good. The promises of Scripture (most prominently in Romans 8) are not a lie. Whatever we see in our culture – whatever goods, and whatever horrors – God is yet in control. Our fear and our resentment are unfounded, and demonstrate the extent to which we have misplaced the doctrine of God’s providence.

Now, these points could be taken to suggest a sort of retreat, an abandonment and a throwing up of the hands: Christians should expect persecution, and God is in charge anyway, so what happens, happens. But if we take the apostles or the many heroes of our faith as our example, we see that they ought to lead us in precisely the opposite direction. Yes, persecution will come; and yes, God is orchestrating all things. The ends to which God is working all things have means, though – namely you and me.

Thus, it behooves us to reject the language of victimization wholesale. We must learn to hold our convictions with good cheer, ready to disagree with our neighbors good-naturedly, unthreatened by their disagreement and unafraid of persecution. Our fellow citizens may not follow our example; but at the least we will have bettered our culture by making it a little less hostile, a little more cheerful, and indeed a little more welcoming to real victims with real grievances.

If our faith is true, it can stand up to any criticism; it can take any attack; it can weather any assault – and it will prove stronger in the end for having endured. More than that, God uses even the hostility of the world for the good of his bride, the church of Jesus Christ. We can have confidence in him and his purposes, and therefore we can take what comes cheerily and in so doing toss every expectation of the world on its head.

The outcome might just be the kind of impact we’ve been looking for all along – but it will be worth it even if not.


  1. I should note that a number of people in the “queer” communities seem to have identified this same problem; David Jay of AVEN seems to get this, for example.
  2. There is much to be grieved by in our politics, not least in the courts, and as will become clear I am not at all opposed to seeking change politically; it is the shape and timbre of our response with which I am primarily concerned.
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  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I fully agree. And the biggest cause of perpetuating victimization in the Evangelical world in my opinion is fundraising.

    It is hard to raise money for your favorite cause if you present a reasonable argument and don’t suggest that the world is about to end.

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com Chris Krycho

      Quite right that it’s a major contributor; Hunter points out the same thing in To Change the World. At the very least, it’s harder to raise money without doing your best to incite a panic every time. Part of the argument Hunter makes, though – and running nicely along with some of the points Matt made a couple weeks ago – is that we have embraced the mistaken notion that we can fix this all right now. If you just give enough money, we can stop our culture from being changed in ways we don’t like! Of course, this is nonsense; cultures are massive, complex, and change in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways.

      Fundraising can be done in a way that actively avoids those problems, though. A number of the missionaries my wife and I support financially have actually gone out of their way to avoid the crisis mentality or the manipulative, “Look, the starving adorable black children!” approach. They’ve replaced it with a much more reasonable attitude: “We’re over here doing missionary work, and it’d be great if we could make this a team effort aimed at long-term results in the Kingdom of God – can you help?” So it’s not the fundraising that’s the problem; it’s the attitude that it tends to represent, I think.

      Insofar as fundraising goes amiss, I think it’s a symptom of (and perhaps a perpetuating and exacerbating contributor to) the underlying disease. As an acquaintance noted in response to this piece on Twitter a little while ago, we American Christians have embraced an enormous sense of entitlement. It really is telling when we conflate taking the 10 commandments out of a courtroom with “persecution”. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be sad to see our society embracing all sorts of ultimately harmful, immoral decisions – but rather, that we shouldn’t take it as a personal offense.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew Loftus

    Amen and amen! This is the best succinct statement of the problem of victimization in American evangelicalism I’ve seen in a long time.

    I would only add, building on your thoughts on Colossians 1:24, that this contributes to another big problem: as Christians fear the world and feel attacked, we “batten down the hatches” and avoid choosing to suffer for others’ sake by going overseas or into the inner city or giving sacrificially. Not to mention the money that could be spent on evangelism, teaching, social justice, the arts, or whatever other worthy causes out there that get redirected to fight the culture war or prop up various political candidates.

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com Chris Krycho

      Very good point.

      I’ll add as a point of clarification (for other readers, if nothing else): again, it’s easy to go too far and start abandoning politics on this basis. That’s not the right answer – but we do waste a lot of our time and money attempting to assuage our fears or attacking those we felt have wronged us, and the time and money spent for that wrong reason can certainly be better allocated elsewhere. By all means, support political candidates. Just don’t buy into our society’s attitude and approach to politics along the way. (Easier said than done.)

      • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew Loftus

        Absolutely. If anything, I would argue that Christians ought to have GREATER political involvement than they currently do– but they should really focus on the local level. It’s an important way to love one’s neighbors, especially in cities like mine where (Baltimore) where important decisions take place quite frequently and it only takes a congregation or two’s worth of votes to make a noise loud enough for local politicians to be heard.

  • http://jaimiekrycho.com Jaimie Krycho

    Excellent post. “Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action.” – I agree that many see this as the primary, if not only, way to spur others to action. As Christians, we have something much more effective, though – a robust view of Christ’s power, one that we rejoice in, in its great breadth and depth, through teaching and study.

  • James M.

    A question from around the fringes, regarding our connection with the state and body politic: Was Paul’s appeal to Caesar appropriate? (See Acts 25:11) IE, should he have subjected himself to the Jews who wanted his life rather than appeal to the political authority that possessed the power to deliver him? We obviously know of his willingness to suffer for the cause of Christ, but I’m wondering how some here might answer that question. (BTW, really like the basis thrust of the post.)

    • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

      I don’t think that working inside political systems as they are is a bad thing. And that is what I see Paul doing.

      I think that is something different from fear mongering. I don’t think Paul was fear mongering at all by appealing to Caesar. In fact I think the problem with our current fear mongering is that we treat Paul’s actual persecution the same as our own in ability to have a cross monument in a public park.

  • James M.

    So, Paul’s appeal was the kind of “working inside the political system” that is appropriate, but “working inside the political system” to make an appeal for a right that the present authorities do not recognize is not appropriate? And the former is OK but the latter is fear mongering?

    My guess is that at least part of the impetus to a certain line of reasoning here is that it’s not OK to defend oneself when the pushback seems to be self-interested and tarnishes the image of Christ in the process; we can easily label it as victimization, fear mongering, a false or poorly informed view of freedom, whatever. While I like Chris’ basic challenge, it seems to me more problematic to point out the for instances. Is it a good idea to lobby for certain things that may not be hills worth dying for? Well, I suppose it depends on whose hill it is. Let’s take one: Is David Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby craft stores, a victim of bad public policy when he is told he must conform to the HHS mandate regarding contraception? I would say that he is, if indeed the civil authority directs him to do something his conscience dictates to be immoral, and he is punished for non-conformity. Is he playing the victim card by suing the administration (something well within his rights as a citizen)? Well, only David Green truly knows the motive, but to characterize his action as an example of victimization seems quite unwarranted on the face of it. We must be careful in attempting to determine motives here.

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com Chris Krycho

      I appreciate the pushback, but I’m not sure you’ve taken my point. (Perhaps I didn’t state it clearly enough, in which case: apologies!) But to say it again as in the post and the previous comments: I’m not in the least arguing against political activism. I’m arguing that we should quit whining when people disagree with us, push against our beliefs, even persecute us. I’m not even opposed to using legal recourse to defend ourselves; we’re blessed to live in a country with a great deal of protection for religious views, and we should defend that (and not only out of self-interest, but love for others as well: it’s good for us and for Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc.). By all means, use the political apparatuses available to us.

      But do so with the expectation that we will be reviled for the sake of Christ. We’re not victims; we’re Christians! We also need to stop using “persecution” as an excuse for being jerks: that’s just un-Christlike, and there’s too much of it out there.

      So I’m calling for a change in orientation toward culture and toward those with whom we disagree. To be sure, that kind of change will inform the ways that we engage politically – it will shift the fights we pick as well as the way we fight them. But that’s not really what I’m arguing for here, and I’m not sure embracing persecution with good cheer would lead us toward anything but more, albeit gentler, political engagement. David Green and Catholic charities and everyone else can (and should!) push back on the HHS mandate without playing the victim. We can point out that we really do believe these sorts of things are bad for everyone (which is true and should be a major part of our concern). We can make good arguments as to why policies should change (as in the case of no-fault divorce or abortion), or stay the same (as in the case of same-sex marriage) without moaning about how much the media and the President hate Christians. We can take hostility directed toward us for these positions in good cheer, instead of complaining about it.

      To run with your example of Paul: he used the political means available to him to achieve his desired end, but we don’t see him whining about how the Jews persecuted him. To the contrary, he went to Jerusalem knowing ahead of time (courtesy of a prophecy, not just general revelation!) that he would be chained for it, and he went joyfully! He used the persecution as a means to advance the gospel; the Emperor’s family ended up with converts in it because Paul cheerfully accepted persecution as the cost of advancing the gospel. Again: politics are not necessarily a problem; the permanent stance of the victim is.

      Worth note, too, that Paul’s move was politically savvy, but not political in the way of modern American politics. Paul wasn’t advocating to change laws, or keep them the same, or anything else. That’s neither here nor there, which is my point in this aside: we can’t draw analogies too closely for anything other than persecution that actually comes against individuals. Those individuals can and should draw on resources like the ACLJ, but without adopting the martyr’s posture. The very best thing we can do in that circumstance is say, “Look, Christians expect to face opposition because of our views. Jesus told us it would happen. And I’m taking a stand here to benefit not only Christians, but all; religious liberty matters to more than just us.”

      Does that clarify the point I’m driving at a bit?

      • James M.

        Looks pretty good to me. I realize I wasn’t addressing precisely the point you were making, but rather the notion advanced by some that certain political action, motivated by a caricatured self-interest, somehow betrays an unwillingness to follow Christ to the point of suffering (again, not your point). I need not say more at this point other than to say thanks for the thoughtful piece.

        • http://www.chriskrycho.com Chris Krycho

          I’m glad you responded, in any case, as it gave me the opportunity to further clarify what I am saying. And for what it’s worth, I have the same problem you do with the attitude that any political action (indeed, often just any action, political or otherwise!) motivated by self-preservation is somehow un-Christlike. In which case, let’s all just find the nearest anti-Christian radical and provoke him, right?

          I do tend to think that the more that Christians point out that we’re not merely self-serving – that our aims and goals really are aimed at (what we believe to be) the good of all, not just ourselves – the more effective we’ll be in making our case. That may entail picking our battles more wisely, and it will certainly entail a shift in tone (as detailed above) as well as in the way we shape our arguments. Again: how much more helpful is it to couch our pushing back against HHS mandates in terms of protecting the freedom of religious expression of everyone rather than crying “Bully!” about ourselves? Just from a rhetorical standpoint, it’s more effective; I also think it’s more Christian in the sense of demonstrating Christ-like love for neighbors (the second great commandment!).

          Much appreciate the dialog. :)

  • http://www.literatecomments.com Erik Charter

    Nice piece. You’ve expressed many of my sentiments that I had not put into words.

  • http://www.literatecomments.com Erik Charter

    You can apply this on a large scale or on a small scale. On a small scale I can apply it to things as simple as how I respond to perceived (or even real) offenses on the basketball court. It’s a great paradigm to apply to all of life as a Christian.

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  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah Anderson

    Another element of victimization is the struggle over power–to feel victimized is to feel powerless and so for many, the solution is to regain, to wrest power back to yourself or your particular group. But a significant part of suffering as a Christian is having the mind of Christ when he said, as he approached the Cross, “No man takes [my life] from me; I lay it down of my own accord.” As children of an all-powerful God, we must approach our own suffering with the same courage and control–no matter what comes to us, we are not powerless, we are subject to the abusers; we gladly and willfully submit to the hand of Providence and know that our suffering will ultimately accomplish a far more eternal weight of glory.

    • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah Anderson

      “we are *not* subject to the abusers”